It was October 7th, 2004 and we were sitting on highly-elevated pews in a London church, waiting to hear Steve Chalke explain and defend his issues with the theory of penal substitution that he outlined in his book “The Lost Message of Jesus” [co-written with Alan Mann]- a book that actually never mentions the term “penal substitution”. The term, btw, refers to a theory of the atonement developed by Calvin and the Reformers and built on the Satisfaction Theory of Anslem. One of the tension points is whether Paul or the writers of the gospels held a view of the atonement similar to the Reformation theologians. Did the Reformed theologians wrongly place a judge’s wig on God the Father? Are we reading Paul through Calvin? Are we clouding Isaiah 53 with our modern concept of a Western legal system?
The debate was hosted by the Evangelical Alliance and it cost us all £4, a meager sum for a good night out. My account of the event is in a blog post called Chalke-Gate. That was a bad title for the evening [apologies to Steve] because it suggests something more controversial that it actually was. In reality, it was a well led, congenial, good-natured discussion and debate. Stuart Murray Williams spoke well in support of Steve Chalke. Here is the text of Stuart’s message.. . [ahhh . .. i just remembered . . . I owe Stuart £9 for his new book called Changing Mission: Learning from the Newer Churches] Anyway, Joel Edwards of EA said they would give it more consideration and work on a statement. More on that later in this post, including the Symposium held the following year.
Fast Forward 2 years.
We are now in America (God bless it) where conversations are conducted differently and the quaint English Symposium gives way to aggressive Atonement Wars. Mark Dever’s article Nothing But The Blood has recently raised the level of tension and an Emerging Church Forum, like this one hosted by Westminister Theological Seminary, has a session entitled “Why Did God Not Spare His Son? The Antecedent Necessity of Penal Substitution”.
Its lunchtime. On one side of the table is John Piper, a well known theologian and defender of the Supremacy of Reformed Thinking in a Postmodern World. On the other side is Tony Jones, a well known theology student and Coordinator of Emergent Village. Also seated are the mandatory henchmen associates that one brings along for such passionate lunchtime discussions. John brought three guys and Tony found the biggest guy on the emerging church circuit – Doug Pagitt
Tony blogs his lunch conversation:
“John Piper basically equates a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement with the gospel. I am unwilling to do that. I don’t disparage that theory of the atonement (see my recent endorsement on the back of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Stott’s The Cross of Christ), but I believe the birth/death/resurrection of Jesus Christ to be the pivot point of cosmic history. Thus, I do not think that one theory interpreting that event to be sufficient. Every theory of the atonement is 1) human, and 2) bound to a context. The penal substitution — while there are seeds of it in Pauline writings — is tied to the development of the Western legal mind.” Tony Jones, who recommends Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement by Gustav Aulen
There are many others who suggest the theory of penal substitution should not stand alone.
Scot McKnight: “For goodness sake, let’s use all the images for atonement so the story will become grander that we can imagine! The atonement, friends, is a banquet, and we need to sample each course as it comes along.” SMK, More Thoughts on Penal Substitution 2
Vanguard Church say it with flowers.
Rewind to 2005
Remember I said that Joel from Evangelical Alliance would push on with the penal substitution thing? Well in July 2005, London School of Theology and Evangelical Alliance hosted a Symposium to bring the conversation further. I wasn’t there. And no one noticed. But the symposium continued in my absence and a statement was issued. Heres the key piece:
“it became plain that significant differences remain between evangelicals on the precise formulation of atonement theology, and on the status of the penal substitutionary theory of atonement in particular.” [link]
“Summing up the symposium, the Alliance’s General Director, Joel Edwards, said: ”Penal substitution is still central for most British evangelicals’ understanding of the cross, and the Alliance’s own ethos reflects that. However, there is an extent to which the exact mechanics of the atonement must remain a mystery to us in our limited, sinful perception.“ [link]
I guess thats where the Evangelicals in UK have landed for the time being. Lets see if the Americans can land gently and avoid the power struggles over who has the superior statement.
Speaking of statements, heres one that we can all agree on . . .
”For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.“ 1 Cor 15:3-4
Heres a sprinkling of resources both for penal substitution as victor of the atonement wars AND as merely one shade of meaning of the atonement but something that should not dominate.
– Richard Hall gets Google Number One ranking for his concise post that is worth a read.
– Scot McKnight takes his time with Penal Substitution Number 1 where he gives a good history of recent scholarship
and Number 2 where he shows why he thinks the penal substitution as a categorical term for a theory for the atonement is not enough.
– Open Source Theology on views of atonement and in particular, why the emerging church should believe in penal substitution, where Andrew Perriman argues that ”a doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is certainly biblical but that it has to be framed narratively.“ A poll on this site showed penal substitution to be the major player in atonement theories, although I found the poll too singular in its focus – do we really have to choose ONE theory over and against the others, or can we see the atonement synoptically and allow for multiple shades of meaning?
– Phil Johnson shames Steve Chalke in Spurgeon and penal substitution revisited
– Pete Brierley on Is Penal Substitution a Naughty Phrase?
– Adrian Warnock discusses an upcoming book and outlines a talk by Thomas Schreiner.
– Conrad Gempf
JI Packer What did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution – its a long read but Packer suggests PS is a keeper.
Mark Dever’s Nothing But The Blood
”The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann
Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement by Gustav Aulen
The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver
Final note: what to tag this? I am not using the ’emerging church’ tag because i dont see this issue as primarily an emerging church issue. Its a whole church issue and Steve Chalke is considered an integral part of the evangelical church of UK – but is not directly connected with the emerging church. I don’t say that in a negative way.